By Joe Garvey

Baseball and horse racing have their Triple Crowns.

So do golf, tennis, auto racing, boxing, bicycling, skiing and even poker.

But Old Dominion University alum Ben Vaughan recently accomplished what might be the most arduous Triple Crown.

Vaughan, who graduated in 2003 with a B.S. in business administration/information technology (e-commerce) with a minor in marketing, finished hiking the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail in August. That completed what's known as the Triple Crown of Thru Hiking. He hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2018 and the Pacific Coast Trail in 2019.

According to The American Long Distance Hiking Association - West, the only organization that recognizes the feat, just 440 people had completed the trifecta from 1994 through November 2019.

Vaughan, 51, needed between 4½ and 5½ months to complete each of the hikes, which total about 7,900 miles, have a vertical gain of more than 1 million feet and run through 22 states.

"I fell in love with the challenge and remoteness of thru hiking, along with the freedom of having everything I need in a backpack," said Vaughan, a former U.S. Navy lieutenant commander. "It's a freedom that I feel would benefit a lot of people."

Vaughan took a circuitous route to hiking.

He retired from the military, which brought him to Hampton Roads and ODU, in 2009 after 22 years and worked as a government contractor. But he eventually decided to "get out of the government sector because it wasn't making me happy" and took a job with Virginia Beach-based J&A Racing, co-owned by alumna Amy Frostick. While there, he worked with the organization to create ODU's Big Blue 5K.

"I found that to be a fairly easy job compared to what I had done in the past," he said. "But it still wasn't providing me with whatever I was looking for. I didn't know what that was."

But he had long dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail. He sold many of his possessions and put the rest on storage so he could make the journey.

"A lot of people thought I was just completely crazy," he said.

He also admits that he didn't fully grasp what how to plan for such an endeavor.

"It's almost embarrassing about how much I didn't know," he said. "I showed up with a backpack sticking out over my head that was 40-plus pounds. Everything I needed times three."

On that trip, he met a hiker from Warrior Expeditions, a nonprofit therapy program that helps veterans transition from the military through long-distance outdoor expeditions. He was one of 40 veterans selected for the program when he hiked the Pacific Coast Trail. Five other veterans were on that hike.

"That transition from military to civilian was not easy for a lot of different reasons," he said. "We didn't hike together. We all went on our own journeys. Being around those other vets from the beginning and talking, I would say it was cathartic ... I think I really let go of a lot of things from past deployments."

Vaughan tackled each trail differently. He hiked the Appalachian Trail with people he met very early on. Last year he hiked the Pacific Coast Trail about half of the time with other hikers he met and the other half solo. On the Continental Divide Trail, he was almost completely alone.

"Every day brings something completely different, no matter which trail you're on," he said. "The trails are very different. A lot of hikers like to say each has its own soul, and you really feel that when you're out there. This last one, for me one of the most interesting things was just how remote it is. Day to day, you don't see anybody. ... For me, I like that challenge, but also, you're out there in the raw beauty of some of the remote places in the United States."

Vaughan is unsure what's next. The Texas native works seasonally and lives in Winter Park, Colo., mentioned possibly hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail, a 1,200-mile trek that goes from the coast of Oregon to Glacier National Park in Montana. He's considering work with a company in the hiking industry. He does volunteer work with trail coalitions to help maintain and build trails. And he's involved with a group called the Leave No Trace Center, which aims to "preserve the wilderness for everyone to enjoy."

But he's eager for that next adventure.

"I'd encourage everyone to get out in nature and explore our national trails," he said. "But they need to make sure they are prepared for extreme weather conditions, finding water and possible wild animal encounters. There are a lot of situations that people need to be prepared to deal with that are not routine in cities."

If you'd like to contact Vaughan for more information about hiking the trails, you can reach him at his Instagram account: @hiking_ginger_b.

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